Wednesday, November 17, 2021

Tanner '88 (1988)

Tanner '88
was an 11-part mini-series directed by Robert Altman and written by Garry Trudeau that aired on HBO during the run up to the 1988 American presidential election. Starring Michael Murphy as underdog presidential candidate Jack Tanner, the series exists somewhere between reality television and mockumentary. Fictional events often take place alongside actual events, like in Haskell Wexler's 1969 "non-fiction film" Medium Cool. Tanner '88 is set during a transitional time in political history when old rules still reigned, new ones were being made, while many universal truths of politics still prevail.

A former congressional representative from Michigan, Tanner often appears as a vapid liberal tolling the 1980s Democratic party line. After eight years of Reagan, Democrats were on the defensive after losing by landslides in the previous two general elections. In off the cuff moments Tanner expresses an idealism that connects with young people. His fledgling campaign in New Hampshire takes off after a recording of him lamenting the loss of 1960s idealism in Reagan's America, in today's parlance, went viral. As the series progresses Tanner's campaign goes through a litany of ups and downs until a dramatic climax at the 1988 Democratic Convention in which he almost swipes the nomination from Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis (Dukakis easily wrapped up the nomination at the convention but would lose to Republican candidate George Bush Sr. in the General Election).

Shot on videotape, Altman's familiar style of overlapping dialogue and meandering camera are used to full effect. The film follows three sets of characters: the candidate Tanner, his staff, and the media. A young Cynthia Nixon co-stars his ambitious daughter Alexandria and Pamela Reed as his savvy campaign manager T.J. Cavanaugh. Many political figures appear as themselves including Bob Dole, Kitty Dukakis, Pat Robertson, and other minor celebrities from the era.

Now thirty years later Tanner '88 was prescient on a number of levels. Murphy himself is a dead ringer for the traditional Democratic candidate. Like Bill Clinton he would bring a 60s sensibility to his rhetoric but would get ensnared by interparty disputes and personal scandals (in the film Tanner is divorced but a media frenzy ensues when it's revealed he's having an affair with a staffer from a rival campaign). One may also find similarities with Al Gore and John Kerry. The Jesse Jackson campaign also figures into the story, the first African American candidate to nearly attain a presidential nomination. One episode depicts Tanner taking part in a protest the Apartheid system in South Africa, a vibrant part of campus activism during the 1980s. Many have lamented an insular streak plaguing the left recently, noting their concerning indifference to the Chinese crackdown on Hong Kong.

Comparisons to The West Wing are often made, but Aaron Sorkin and Robert Altman have vastly different sensibilities. If Tom Clancy novels served as fantasies for conservatives on how political leadership should work, The West Wing did the same for liberals. Fiction allows for those with political inclinations to fantasize about ideal political leadership, but Tanner '88 is more in the tradition of Gore Vidal (would Vidal have liked Hamilton?) Any politician will eventually have to compromise on their ideals, upset the ideologues who support them, and maybe become the very thing they hate. One could easily see Tanner going down such a path, there's an unfashionable cynicism embedded into the story.

Or modern audiences may find Tanner '88 too tame in our period of polarization, decline, populism, fascist flirtations, and all within the vortex of social media. One may even find it naïve and nostalgic for a time when the threat of violence did not hang over national elections. Yet the America of 1988 and 2021 aren't so apart from each other: all politics remain local. The same issues continue to plague the country.

Altman and Trudeau sat down for a discussion for the Criterion Edition, and both fondly remembered the project. The 2004 release also featured updates before each episode with the series principals reprising their roles. In 2019 Murphy returned as Tanner for the 2019 Martin Scorsese film Rolling Thunder Review: A Bob Dylan Story.   

Monday, November 8, 2021

The Sparks Brothers (2021) ***1/2

The Sparks Brothers may not be household names, but chances are you've come across their music in some form along the way. I recall their appearance in the 1977 disaster film Rollercoaster, always thinking they were a fake acid rock band from the era. But they are in fact very real, recording 25 albums over the past 50 years. The documentary The Sparks Brothers directed by Edgar Wright (a big fan himself) covers the many ups and downs of their not so well-known career. Natives of California, Ron Mael and Russell Mael as Sparks defied convention at every point in their career, an approach that both boosted their reputation among their peers, but the popularity that many of the musicians they inspired went on to have, especially in the punk, post-punk and New Wave genres, eluded them. The documentary does an admirable job of navigating the ramshackle path of their career, the recurring motif being they were always ahead of the curve. Talking heads ranging from Beck to their other associates also contribute much to the film. Even Paul McCartney himself gave Sparks a shout out on his 1979 "Coming Up" video. The year 2021 may finally be their breakout year with a popular documentary and the acclaimed film they wrote and scored entitled Annette

Friday, November 5, 2021

The French Dispatch (2021) ***1/2

Wes Anderson specializes in creating worlds of the hyperreal, fantastical representations of the past. His 2014 film The Grand Budapest Hotel, a bittersweet film about Europe in the years leading up to The Second World War, conjures a lively human drama with a melancholy ending. The French Dispatch pays homage to midcentury journalism serving as a spiritual sequel to Budapest Hotel. Inspired by The New Yorker, the film shares four legendary stories from the fictional French Dispatch upon the death of its editor and chief Arthur Howitzer Jr., played by a stately Bill Murray. It's a departure from previous Anderson films in that it's an anthology, telling four separate stories set during different periods of the 20th Century.

"The Cycling Reporter" vignette stars Owen Wilson with him playing up his persona as a roving reporter in the fictional city of Ennui (Paris). "The Concrete Masterpiece" stars Benicio del Toro as a brilliant and volatile artist who falls in love with his jailer played by Lea Seydoux. When art dealers become aware of his work, he becomes a sensation among the intelligentsia.  "Revision of a Manifesto" stars Frances McDormand and Timothy Chalamet during the "Chessboard Revolution" student uprising (May 68). And finally, "The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner" features Jeffrey Wright as a food writer who gets caught up in all sorts of intrigue.

Anderson pulls all the stops with his signature visual style including vibrant colors, rotating from B&W to color, and even some animated sequences. Many Anderson regulars also appear, wouldn't it have been cool if Gene Hackman had come out of retirement? Each section recalls something of a lost era. Wilson as the happy go lucky photojournalist evokes an American enthusiasm for immersion in another culture, evoking an endearing sense of wonder and invention. "The Concrete Masterpiece" satirizes the media obsession with macho, temperamental artist. At the same time there's a nostalgia for a time when a painting could shake up the world. 

"Revision of a Manifesto" is the most adventurous chapter as it follows the student leader (Chalamet) of a revolution agonizing over writing a manifesto and receiving help from seasoned reporter played by McDormand. The style looks and feels like a Godard film from the period (through the more precise eye of Anderson). Yet its patronizing tone towards the mythology of student/worker solidarity of May '68 borders on smug conservatism. The last tale is the most chaotic and tragicomic but held together by Wright (a James Baldwin/Truman Capote composite) as he relates his story about a legendary chef during a Dick Cavett type interview.

If The Grand Budapest Hotel lamented the loss of a more refined and harmonious world ended by crude modernism (for lack of a better ism), The French Dispatch imagines a past when Chaplinesque figures and sincere eccentrics shaped culture - for the better. One did not read books about how to be creative or think like an artist, it was about being present. 

I've found Anderson's past films to be wonderful to look at, but shallow in their view of humanity. His recent films bear the same aesthetic of visual perfection, but also reveal an intriguing conversation with the past by creating characters who were fully engaged with their time and were also aware things were changing. I hope he makes a film set in more contemporary times to truly put his aesthetic to the test, as opposed to seeking cover in the grandeur of the past. I'm sure reading every issue of The New Yorker from 1945 to say 1975 leaves anyone with a literary bent drunk on romantic notions of witnessing and shaping their times. 

The French Dispatch reveals Anderson is still at the height of his powers, the question is whether he'll continually take cover in an imagined past or deal more directly with the troubled present.

Last Night in Soho (2021) ***1/2

Edgar Wright's latest Last Night in Soho channels the energy of Swinging '60s London in a fantastical story that's also set in the present. With two strong female leads in Thomasin McKenzie and Anna Taylor-Joy and a supple soundtrack of deep cuts of British rock and pop music from the Mid-1960s, the film builds a momentum that sustains itself even when the story gets a little murky.

Eloise (McKenzie) begins the film by learning the news she's been accepted into a London fashion school, her dream come true. Enamored with everything about the 1960s from the music to the fashions, she soon finds herself literally transported to the era. Upon arriving in London, she's picked on by her snooty roommates for being a country mouse lacking in style and charisma. Feeling like an outcast, Eloise decides to rent a room in an old neighborhood with somewhat foreboding landlady with strict rules. But it's quieter and allows for privacy. But then things begin to get a little strange.

At night she finds herself inhabiting 1965 London, sort of possessing the spirit of Sandy (Taylor-Joy), an ingenue on the London scene trying to make her way as a singer. Jack (Matt Smith)claims to have connections to the music business and romances Sandy, making big promises along the way. In time Sandy finds herself ensnared into the London underworld. Meanwhile, Eloise begins to adopt Sandy's persona in present day London as their identities begin to converge. Sandy provides Eloise with a newfound confidence as she begins to excel at school. 

A sense of foreboding begins to take over the story as the second half moves into thriller and horror territory. The past Eloise romanticizes no longer looks that great as she begins to realize there are ghosts everywhere. Wright's approach to the scares mostly reminded me of Kubrick's in The Shining, there's an old timey haunted house look, while evoking the unspoken horrors of the past, perpetuated by older men on young women. 

The vividness of the visual and sonic landscape makes up for some of the weak points in the story, which nearly careens into incoherence during the final 20 minutes. McKenzie was perfectly cast as Eloise, coming off two memorable performances in Jojo Rabbit and Leave No Trace. Taylor-Joy, unforgettable in The Queen's Gambit, is never fully developed as a character although she does have some memorable moments. To its credit, Last Night in Soho is never boring, Wright's passion for cinema is evident in every shot. One may complain about style being highlighted above narrative cohesion, but I don't see that as a negative in this case, a compelling journey most of the way through.  

Thursday, October 28, 2021

Dune ***1/2

Frank Herbert's classic 1965 novel Dune changed the landscape of science fiction with its deeply embedded themes of history, politics, religion, and ecology. Many filmmakers took inspiration from the novel, it screamed for a cinematic visionary to put it on celluloid. Chilean filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky began pre-production on an adaptation during the mid-1970s but funding for the project fell through. The story is told in the fascinating 2013 documentary Jodorowsky's Dune. The first adaptation arrived in 1984, directed by David Lynch who was coming off his underground hit Eraserhead and a brilliant adaptation of The Elephant Man, critics were unkind to the film, but it's gained a loyal following.

The newest version directed Denis Villeneuve who is coming off two strong Sci-Fi movies Arrival (2016) and Blade Runner 2049 (2017). The ambition and scope of Dune is a natural progression from those two films. Delayed by the 2020 pandemic, Warner Bros waited until the time was right for a theatrical release. Unlike the Lynch version, the 2021 Dune has mostly met with a positive reception. Is this Dune a better film than the Lynch version? It's hard to compare the two since both are from different eras and sensibilities but played back-to-back they complement each other nicely.

I'm a fan of Villeneuve's previous two films and Dune is visually and stylistically much in line with Arrival and Blade Runner 2049 (specifically the yellowish-gray sheen). While there's a coldness and seriousness to his films, they're also immersive and unique in their approach. They don't look or feel like a DC or Marvel movie, nor any of the other franchises currently in vogue. Although he's often compared to Christopher Nolan, I see Ridley Scott as more of an influence. Villeneuve's films are insular contained worlds not unlike Alien or Blade Runner (no coincidence he made the sequel).

Dune is known for its complexity and dense approach to genre, so plot synopsis is limited. Set in the year 10,191, the plot involves galactic intrigue between the Houses of Atreides and Harkonnen centered on the desert planet of Arrakis. The planet is home to "spice", the most valuable natural resource, making intergalactic travel possible and contains hallucinogenic properties, a combination of oil and LSD? 

The protagonist Paul is played by Timothee Chalamet, heir to the Atreides dynasty ruled by his father Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac) and his mother Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) a member of the mystical sisterhood. Their dynasty is presented as noble as opposed to the militaristic Harkonnens. Many notables appear in the cast including Josh Brolin, Zendaya, Dave Bautista, Stellan Skarsgard, Charlotte Rampling, Jason Momoa, and many more. While every actor gets a moment, they all feel a bit too brief. 

The first half of the film is especially strong, world building and character introductions are well done. There's a grim tone evoking the darkest days of the Second World War when the Nazis were on the cusp of mystery, things are stark and intense. There's also a sense of mystery and even wonder - a rare thing in movies these days. In the second half things get muddled, but does build to a meaningful climax to set up the second film.

Will Dune have the momentum to become a phenomenon along the lines of Lord of the Rings or Star Wars. The ecological themes in the story are part of the zeitgeist, Herbert was certainly ahead of the curve by focusing on environmental themes.  A main drawback will be the lack of likable characters, the protagonist Paul is built as the hero, but his character is complex and off putting at times. Neither am I sure if the movie will leave audiences with the same resonance from a film like 2001: A Space Odyssey. Dune is about power, politics, and ambiguous morality. It keeps the audience at a distance.

Hans Zimmer's score is atmospheric and bombastic. The production and costume designs are impressive. But Dune is a vision, a bold one drawing based upon rich source material, providing an experience. A cultural phenomenon? I'm not so sure.


Sunday, October 24, 2021

The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973)

Based on the classic George V. Higgins novel, The Friends of Eddie Coyle is a pristine example of an adaptation that's both loyal and manages to build upon the source material. Directed by Peter Yates and starring Robert Mitchum as the title character, some of the best character actors from the era are featured including Peter Boyle, Richard Jordan, Steven Keats, and Alex Rocco. The story follows low level criminal Eddie Doyle as he faces multiple pressure from the Feds and his associates from within the criminal underworld of Boston. The hip score by Dave Grusin and and a documentary like feel for 1970s Boston creates an unmistakable vibe.

Eddie is low level player who often acts as a middle-man, the film begins with him arranging gun transactions for a gang of bank robbers led by Alex Rocco. Eddie's also facing jail time after getting arrested for transporting alcohol out of state. As a result, he's in frequent communication with a treasury agent Foley (Jordan) who wants to flip Eddie and use him as an informant. Coyle hopes to get out of his impending jail sentence if he can become an informant, yet at the same time recoils against the idea of becoming a full-time fink.

Although the story itself is rather simple, the underlying themes of desperation and existential angst that drives the film. The criminal life is depicted with a raw melancholy, Eddie simply wants to be able to pay the plumber. It's also a dishonest world where loyalty is finite, and danger always lurks. In a striking scene early in the film Eddie recounts to young gun dealer Jackie Brown (Keats) the time his hands were broken repeatedly after guns he sold were traced - resulting in high level players going to prison.

At the same time there's a sense of professionalism epitomized by the bank robbers who have an effective method of pulling off bank heists. The invade the bank manager's house in the morning, hold the family hostage, and then take the manager to the bank who then lets them into the safe. Treasury agent Foley (Jordan) wishes he were higher in the ranks of law enforcement, but does what he must do to get intelligence from low level criminals. 

Perhaps it's the Boston setting, but there's a theology of sorts rolling through the film. A Catholic conscience lurks through the story (one character mentions performing acts of contrition), scenes at the diners, especially between Mitchum and Jordan, feel like confessions with their quiet tones in a classic noir setting. It's a world where the idea of God exists in a lip service sort of way, the only mode is survival. Justice starts to sound like a dopey utopian idea in the face of stark reality, one must make their decisions and live with them. 

Peter Yates's direction provides a guiding hand throughout, his filmography reveals a strong ability to use settings to full effect whether it's the American Midwest in Breaking Away or a futuristic San Francisco in Bullitt. Inner suburban Boston is all row houses and parking lots. The autumnal feeling is evoked with great skill, you can feel the chill in the air. Solace comes in the form of a cup of coffee and a glass of beer on tap or watching Bobby Orr at the Boston Garden with a rowdy crowd.

The noir poetry of Eddie Coyle evokes a vivid portrait that's rooted in realism. The "little guy" hardly stands a chance in the face of the powerful and indifferent forces surrounding him. While the tropes are formulaic, there's nothing formulaic in the telling of the story. Mitchum is at his best as the aging criminal, while the direction and acting from the entire cast make Coyle a classic of '70s cinema. 

Friday, October 15, 2021

No Time to Die (****)


No Time to Die is the grand finale to the Daniel Craig era of James Bond movies, it's the Abbey Road of the 007 series, with a "one last adventure" vibe running through the entire film. It's nostalgic, but also looking into the future of what the next phase of franchise might look like. While the filmmaking of Paul Greengrass and Christopher Nolan have informed the Craig era, Cary Fukunaga's surefooted direction provides a cinematic quality rooted in the past films of the series, but also more seamless and kinetic than its predecessors. Fukunaga brings an organic quality to the action sequences and allows the characters to breathe, allowing the almost 3+ running time to run smoothly. Scenes never feel rushed or routine, all the characters are nicely integrated into the story.

The extended opening sequence sets up the story with Bond tying up some loose ends from a previous storyline only to his life put on a new trajectory by what he discovers. Lea Seydoux is back as Dr. Madeline Swann, Bond's love interest from Spectre who's also given a meaningful arc here. There's an echo of The Dark Knight Rises in the first section of the movie, as five years pass with Bond going off the grid and becoming something of a legend. He's inevitably called back to the Secret Service over a deadly threat presented by SPECTRE.

Familiar players also return with Naomie Harris as Miss Moneypenny, Ben Whishaw as Q, and Ralph Fiennes as M (really channeling Bernard Lee this time around). Jeffrey Wright, absent since Quantum of Solace, reprises his role as Felix Leiter. Newcomers to the cast include Ana De Armas as Paloma, a fellow agent who helps Bond and Lashana Lynch as "00" operative who will also become a partner of sorts to Bond, representing the new generation of MI6. Rami Malek plays the villain "Safin" providing an emo quality to the villains that's common in the Craig era, at the same time draws upon traditional supervillain tropes from the 1960s.

No Time to Die surprisingly takes a lot from the Connery era of films and the one entry with George Lazenby On Her Majesty's Secret Service. John Barry's music is present throughout and there's a villain's lair reminiscent of the Ken Adams sets from You Only Live Twice and The Spy Who Loved Me. Many may quaff at the tendency of these Bond films to serialize and mimic the Marvel approach to movies. But the series has always been influenced by what's going in cinema at the time. While the Connery movie reinvented the espionage genre, by the fourth entry Thunderball the series began to be influenced by other films. 

That's why the Abbey Road comparison to No Time to Die feels right. Like The Beatles (who Bond famously dissed in Goldfinger) the series remains rooted in the 1960s milieu. The final album by the Beatles was hardly earth shaking when it was released in 1969, the world was moving on without them and they would soon cease to exist as a living entity. But it's always great to revisit that last record! No Time to Die will feel like that in the extensive Bond canon, a pleasing finale to a hectic era in world history, further pronounced by the number of delays in its release due to the 2020-21 pandemic. James Bond Will Return - we're counting on it! 

Wednesday, August 25, 2021

Spielberg's Visions of the American Highway: Duel & The Sugarland Express

Duel and The Sugarland Express were both directed by Steven Spielberg at the start of his storied career. Both films put the American road front and center. Duel, based on a Richard Matheson short story, follows salesman David Mann as he's being terrorized by an unseen truck driver. Duel proved to be Spielberg’s breakout film, earning a theatrical release in Europe and the financing to make his first feature film for Universal, The Sugarland Express. Loosely based on an actual event that occurred in Texas in April of 1969, the film follows a fugitive couple who took a state highway patrolman hostage in a doomed scheme to prevent their child from being placed in foster care. Both road pictures, each one uses their respective settings with skill and ingenuity. 

The road serves as a stage for 1970s American life in Duel and The Sugarland Express, a zone of high drama where life and death decisions are made every second. Full of contradictions, the roads are places of conflict, freedom, alienation, loneliness, overcrowding, a means of escape and entrapment. In Duel, past American iconography morphs into an uncertain future. The Sugarland Express presents a complex view of contemporary life: the road serves as a stage for the chaos of American, prescient of the decades to come with a mass media feeding a public obsessed with the pseudo-event and to quote the film's co-screenwriter Matthew Robbins, "achieving fame without notoriety." 

Duel: The Road as a Cultural Combat Zone

Duel came to Spielberg’s attention after his assistant suggested the Matheson short story which had appeared in Playboy, knowing the story played to his sensibility. For the DVD release Spielberg expressed his admiration for Matheson, especially his teleplays for The Twilight Zone. Matheson also adapted Duel into a screenplay which impressed Spielberg, providing precision guidance on how to shoot the car chase (the film would contain minimal dialogue). 

Dennis Weaver was cast as David Mann since Spielberg was a fan of Weaver’s performance as the paranoid motel keeper in Touch of Evil, making him an ideal casting choice as the terrified motorist. Under intense pressure from ABC to complete filming in 10 days, the studio was so impressed with Spielberg's footage they granted him extra time to complete the film. The original version of Duel which aired on television was 74 minutes long. Spielberg was granted permission to film additional scenes to qualify for a theatrical run. Purists prefer the minimalist TV version which is more focused on the action. Additional scenes filmed included a phone call between Mann and his wife. Unfortunately, the DVD and Blu-Ray releases only contain the extended version, not as it originally aired on November 13, 1971.

A POV shot opens Duel, taking the viewer on a journey from Mann's home suburbia, into the city, and finally into the open country. Outskirts of the cities had yet to be turned into vast sprawls of strip malls and fast-food plazas that are all too familiar to motorists today. The isolated highway Mann travels evokes a sense of desolation, sparsely littered with truck stops and roadside attractions. He's running late for a meeting with his boss and dealing with the fallout after an argument with his wife the night before. References are frequently made to Mann losing power in his household, evidenced in a clever visual of him framed inside a washing machine. A caller into a radio show Mann's listening to drones on about not being the head of his household (he takes care of the children while his wife works). It's an unrecognizable talk radio before the Fairness Doctrine was repealed (allowing right wing blowhards to dominate the AM airwaves).

Annoyed at the slow-moving truck ahead of him chugging exhaust in his face, Mann makes a quick pass. Then the truck speeds up on Mann and passes him. Then the truck slows down again, making it clear he's playing a game of chicken. Frightened after being run off the road, Mann takes refuge at a Café, and wonders if anyone can "drive on a public highway without someone trying to kill you.” The café resembles a remnant of the prototypical Western saloon where violent confrontations were common. Out of his element amongst the blue-collar truckers who look at him with suspicion and contempt, Mann’s sense of fear and disorientation is emphasized by the shaky camera following him around. Realizing the driver is now parked outside the café, Mann eyes the place for possible suspects, all are dressed the same way in denim jeans, shirts, and boots. The unofficial uniform of a Western trucker I presume.

Mann stumbles into a fight after sheepishly confronting a trucker he believes to be the culprit and gets himself punched out. Weaver never plays Mann as a likable character, he's often fussy and even winey when talking to his wife or dealing with a zealous gas station attendant. Mann is nothing at all like a male archetype of the time like Steve McQueen: clumsy driving, averse to confrontation, and a seething self-pity over his lot in life. Part of the Duel’s power stems from Mann coming to terms with the situation at hand and overcoming it, but by no means in the way audiences were used to seeing from male actors of the era. Duel subverts expectations by tilting towards reality, the way any person would react when being terrorized by an unknown assailant. As Spielberg’s proto-everyman, echoes of the character would occur in many of his later films in a more polished form, Chief Brody in Jaws being one example.

The desert highway serves as a battleground during the second half of the film (with detours along the way). There’s the red herring of the broke down school bus. When Mann proves unable to help the stranded children (further emphasizing his ineffectual nature) he gets mocked by the kids, the trucker comes along and saves them. During the final section Mann and the trucker are far from civilization as their chase plays itself out. The display of trophies on the truck (in the form of state license plates on his cab) represent the kills of a hunter. Only when Mann starts to fight back do the odds even out.

Duel has invited comparison to other films of the era dealing with masculinity, Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs with their shared focus on imperiled masculinity (Friedman 129-132). Spielberg allows Mann to be redeemed at the end as he sits gazing at the sunset in hollow victory. European critics saw class struggle in Duel, pitting the working against the professional class, much to Spielberg's surprise. The class theme is best expressed in the café sequence. Road rage, trucks, and embittered white masculinity are a real social phenomenon Duel foresaw.

Spielberg has spoken of the truck in Duel being a metaphor for the hostile forces facing the individual. The lone individual verses a hostile world is a recurring theme in Matheson’s work as well from I am Legend to The Incredible Shrinking ManThe last act of Duel emphasizes the primal side to the story, not unlike Jaws. It's no coincidence Spielberg chose the same sound effect for the crashing truck and exploded shark.

The Sugarland Express: The Road as Metaphor

Executives at Universal were initially cool towards The Sugarland Express because of its downbeat ending. Yet the promise Spielberg displayed in Duel got him the green light to film The Sugarland Express on location in Texas. With Hal Barwood and Matthew Robbins putting the finishing touches on their script, Spielberg scouted locations in Texas with cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond. Goldie Hawn was cast in the lead role as Lou Jean. Other members of the cast included William Atherton as Clovis, Ben Johnson as Captain Tanner, and Michael Sacks as Officer Slide. Many of the extras were locals. 

The opening shot focuses in on a road sign points in all directions evoking the wide spaces and extensive landscape of Texas. The camera follows Lou Jean to the holding facility where she plans to break out her husband Clovis, at the tail end of a sentence for petty larceny. Wearing multiple layers of clothing, Lou Jean provides Clovis with civilian clothes to smuggle him out despite his protest he’ll be released in a few months. They convince an elderly couple to give them a ride, the old man proceeds to get pulled over for driving too slowly. In a tight spot, Clovis and Lou Jean hijack the police cruiser and take Officer Slide hostage.

A chase ensues that will draw the attention of the entire Texas Highway Patrol and become a "media event." Captain Tanner as played by Ben Johnson, a veteran actor known for Westerns, Tanner's portrayed as a man out of place in the 1970s. He finds himself having to contend with the fugitives, keeping his own command under control, and all the extra mania surrounding the chase. Spielberg often lets the camera linger on Tanner’s face as he looks on with disbelief at the circus antics going on around him. His only display of anger is aimed at the vigilantes who decided to take the law into their own hands, firing upon Lou Jean and Clovis and almost hitting Officer Slide. Later, Tanner shoots out the tires of a TV news crew attempting to get an exclusive interview during the chase.

The stop in Rodrigo towards the end of the journey best illustrates the surreal nature of the film. The entire town of Rodrigo greets Clovis and Lou Jean as conquering heroes. They're offered gifts including a pig and a teddy bear (used as a symbol on the movie poster). The scene was inspired by Billy Wilder's Ace in the Hole. Yet the initial excitement quickly gives way to weariness as Clovis stares on in disbelief at what he's been pulled into by Lou Jean. As the chaos intensifies the marching band music goes out of tune, adding to the mood and a forecast of the futility and eventual doom of the situation.

The elegiac, but somber, final shot captures the tragedy of the ending, the death of Clovis and a broken family. Everything about the enterprise, once a source of so much excitement is suddenly yesterday's news, a minor footnote to history. Everyone involved, including Tanner, are dwarfed by the event, and even somehow diminished.

Gun culture, while in the background, is also present throughout the film. In a Western everyone carries a firearm, but in The Sugarland Express it borders on unnerving. The vigilantes have a prominent bumper sticker “REGISTER COMMUNISTS, NOT GUNS! When they open fire at the car lot things quickly slip out of control, unable to handle their own weapons. The young boy with the men looks on horror at the real consequences of violence. At Rodrigo, the highway patrol compensates a pile of guns from armed citizens also looking to take the law into their own hands. These raw depictions of an armed citizenry are both absurd and frightening, not an anti-gun message per se, but simply a part of the culture's tapestry. 

If Duel channels a ghostly America of desolate highways, The Sugarland Express warns of a hellscape in the making, anticipating a declining infrastructure and a celebrity obsessed culture. Consumerism intrudes everywhere in the guise of garish billboards and the intrusion of fast food at the onset of its prevalence over American life (at one point Clovis and Lou Jean eat McDonald's food). The landscape is dotted with gigantic used car lots and gas stations signaling America’s unhealthy addiction to fossil fuels. Traffic jams were a recurring motif in many films of the New Hollywood era, Five Easy Pieces and Nashville come to mind, Spielberg presents the road as a landscape of clogged traffic and reckless drivers eschewing safety played to comic effect. The cars themselves often break down, the human need for speed and movement proves too much, like the guns, cars are merely tools dangerous and unpredictable.

Spielberg said his intention was to indict the media as a “circus on wheels.” From a 21st Century perspective, the film was almost prophetic in predicting the social media phenomenon. Spielberg stated in the same interview, “today any one of us can create a major news story by doing the smallest, most simple, neurotic act.” Lou Jean, who Spielberg considered the antagonist of the story, gets way too caught up in all the attention and fame and loses sight of why she embarked on the madcap journey. In the scene when take in a quiet moment watching a drive showing Roadrunner and Coyote cartoon, the metaphor of Looney Tunes makes perfect sense.

Duel and The Sugarland Express reveal Spielberg as uncanny observer of American life. The road as a place where the anxieties and hassles of American life play out every day are given meaning through Spielberg's cinematic visions. If Jack Kerouac imagined roads as a sanctuary of freedom and possibility, Spielberg presents a more ominous view: an extension of American consumer society and never ending cultural conflict. From road rage to bumper sticker sloganeering to embittered masculinity brandishing rifles and pickups - the road was -and is- a dangerous place.

Works Cited

Citizen Spielberg by Lester Friedman

Steven Spielberg: Interviews Edited by Lester Friedman

Steven Spielberg: A Biography by Joseph McBride


Saturday, June 26, 2021

Carrie ****

In one of the best Stephen King adaptations, Carrie remains one of the great horror films for its stylistic flourishes. Brian De Palma turned the High School experience into a bloody horror show, taking one of its most sacred institutions of the Prom and turning it into a hellscape of fire and revenge. There are dual hells existing in the film: living with an abusive parent and High School itself. 

De Palma builds upon the work of Hitchcock by taking it up the 11th decibel.  I cannot imagine Hitchcock making a film about High School!  Like the King novel, De Palma is unswerving in his realistic depiction of High School and its insipid social structure. The contrast between the novel and movie are fascinating, both masterful in different ways. 

Carrie is a triumph of casting as well.  Sissy Spacek is brilliant as iconic Carrie, tapping into the vulnerability, rage, and gentleness as the misfit daughter of a religious nutcase who endures constant bullying. Yet as her unlikely suitor Tommy realizes, when outside of her shell, Carrie White a beautiful person full of hopes and dreams. Every minor character works, Piper Laurie is unforgettable as Mrs. White, a terrifying character who actually exists in every American community.  John Travolta in an early role as the brute Billy Nolan makes a repulsive villain and Nancy Allen equally duplicitous as the ultimate mean girl.

The early sequence in the women's locker room surely appealed to De Palma, an edgy scene blending sexuality, horror, cruelty, and reality.  Humiliated after having her first period, the scene promptly tells us the film will be disorienting. All the eccentric angles and split diopters distort perception and open the doors of surrealism. 

A heightened reality on all levels with a noticeably older cast playing High School students from the Gothic nightmare of the White household. The nightmare prom remains potent, booth cathartic and terrifying. The final scene now looks a bit cheesy since it was ripped off so many times, still great within the context of the film. 

Monday, June 14, 2021

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

Released a few months after Star Wars changed the landscape of movies in the autumn of 1977, Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind also proved to be a landmark in Sci-Fi cinema. While Sci-Fi movies were typically on the periphery of American movies up to that point in film history, the genre would become a major part of the film industry in the decades to come. Close Encounters channeled the zeitgeist by dramatizing the UFO phenomenon, government cover ups, and a sprinkling of post-hippy revivalism. The Voyager spacecraft was also launched in 1977, destined to explore the solar system and venture beyond it into eternity. A set of recordings aboard the Voyager craft were humanity's first attempt to communicate with another intelligent civilization. Close Encounters also evoked a sense of wonder by emphasizing interstellar communication. Grounded in reality yet surreal and idealistic it achieves a unique tone enhanced by its innovative special effects, inspired casting, and a sense of the uncanny.

As a teenager in Arizona Spielberg made Firelight with help from family and friends. The film was screened at the local movie theater and even got a write up in the local paper. While Firelight was by no means an early version of Close Encounters, it did deal with themes of alien visitation and government conspiracies. Later when Spielberg was directing television for Universal in the early 1970s, he began developing what would become Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Early on considered making a documentary on the UFO subject, but became more intrigued with creating an original story.

Although Spielberg received sole screenwriting credit, many writers worked on an ever evolving script. Spielberg pitched the idea of Close Encounters to studios as a conspiracy thriller about “UFOs and Watergate.” Paul Schrader, later of Taxi Driver fame and many other films, was hired to write the script under the title of Kingdom Come. Available online, the script followed a military officer who was an agent of disinformation on UFOs for the Air Force who would have his own life changing encounter. Schrader wanted to tell a modern version of Paul the Apostle resulting in a cerebral and serious script. Somewhat dry and repetitive in the middle, Kingdom Come ends with an obvious nod to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Spielberg rejected the script outright; it goes without saying their creative sensibilities were polar opposites. Yet many elements of the Schrader script found their way into the final film. Other writers were brought including frequent Spielberg collaborators Hal Barwood and Matthew Robbins (The Sugarland Express) who helped polish the dialogue during production.

During the hectic filming of Jaws at Martha’s Vineyard, Spielberg continued developing the story, deciding to make his protagonist an everyman instead of a military officer. Richard Dreyfuss was cast as Roy Neary, an electrician living a suburban existence who has a life changing close encounter. Teri Garr was cast as Roy’s wife Ronnie. French filmmaker Francois Truffaut was cast as the UFO investigator Lacombe. Others in the cast included Melinda Dillon as single mom Jillian Guiler, Bob Balaban as translator David Laughlin, Cary Guffey, and Lance Henricksen. Most of the film was shot in Mobile, Alabama, including an abandoned hangar used for the final sequence. The 2016 documentary Who Are You People? reveals many production stories from locals who worked on the film in Mobile.

The opening 20 minutes highlight Spielberg’s ability to blend the extraordinary with the mundane. The opening scene set at the Sonoran Desert in Mexico follows an investigation of a UFO sighting followed by the discovery of airplanes originating from the Second World War. The sequence also sets up the theme of communication with Laughlin (Balaban) translating from Spanish to English and French. Then the film transitions to an air traffic control tower in Indiana (shot in Palmdale, California) as they receive dramatic reports of UFO sightings. Spielberg managed to make banal environments compelling by focusing on the faces, light, and sound (the scene was filmed months before principal photography began to reassure Columbia Studios the concept could work).

The next scene takes place the home of Jillian Guiler (Dillon) follows her her toddler son Barry. As toys and appliances start going haywire, Barry appears to be drawn towards some sort of force. He runs away and Jillian goes searching for him. Meanwhile, at the Neary household Spielberg paints a portrait of suburban malaise. On a weekend evening Roy appears more concerned with his train set than helping his son learn fractions. Ronnie must keep things in order and discipline the bickering kids. The house feels cramped and claustrophobic, a phantasmal vision of the average family. At the same a relatable and realistic depiction of an suburban household, Truffaut especially admired these scenes for their intimacy within an epic movie. Spielberg would become known as the chronicler of white suburbia and these scenes would be replayed most famously in E.T.

After a power outage (caused by the spaceships) sends Roy out to work on restoring power he experiences a dramatic close encounter. The use of sound, lighting, and visual effects are a marvel, a classic Spielberg moment perhaps even more so today since CGI was not yet available. After the encounter Roy’s life is forever changed, similar to the encounter in Schrader script. Lost in a psychic mania after the counter, Roy drags his confused family back to the location later that night. But neglecting his work costs him his job - and much more.

Close Encounters is structured so the very personal stories of the main characters play out amongst the global intrigue surrounding the phenomena. As the UFO investigators make new discoveries, including an ocean liner found in the Gobi Desert and locating the landing site at Devil’s Tower in Wyoming - everyone starts to be drawn to that location. Meanwhile Roy’s family life continues to unravel culminating with him ripping his yard apart to build a physical manifestation of his visions. In a scene 
reminiscent of a classic horror movie, the aliens abduct Barry. While the visitors are ultimately revealed to be benign, taking a child away from their mother does create some narrative/tonal issues! An effective sequence, but somewhat out of tune with the ending unless one interprets it as a misunderstanding?

The dissolution of the Neary family would become a familiar trope to Spielberg films. While these scenes have been parodied many times, they do tap into an underlying darkness woven into the story. As Roy is consumed (against his will) about his encounter the family splinters. The dinner table scene with Ray playing with his mash potatoes signals his breakdown, the camera lingers on the confused faces of Ronnie and his children. As Roy’s behavior becomes more erratic, culminating with him ripping apart his own yard Ronnie decides to leave him. These scenes get to how tenuous the nuclear family can be when put under stress - economically and psychologically. 

One could also argue Roy was never meant to be a “family man” because of his child like nature. Modern day viewers would identify Roy as a classic case of “Peter Pan Syndrome,” the adult male unwilling or unable to take on adult responsibilities in favor of a life centered around escapism. One can view Roy’s mania in spiritual terms, a biblical prophet being “called” towards a higher purpose. Or is he rebelling against the expectations of a system? “Me Decade” politics would frown upon adults shirking responsibilities for selfish reasons (women faced even harsher judgments from moralistic pundits). A psychologist would suggest Roy to ignore his erratic impulses and focus on his family, but the universe had other plans. While Spielberg would later express misgivings with a protagonist who abandons their family, the fact of having a man willingly leave his family still feels subversive - even more so for a woman to abandon her family.

Eventually Roy realizes he must go to Wyoming to be present for the landing. Devil’s Tower featured prominently in many Native American oral histories, in many of them the obelisk served as a haven for children being chased by a bear. In one story according to the National Park Service Website, little girls who were being terrorized by a bear took refuge on a rock and it rose into the heavens. The children became star beings (origins of the Pleiades Star Cluster), so the site has always had a cosmic connection. Perhaps it’s no coincidence when the aliens appear at the end many of them resemble little children (all were portrayed by little girls). 

Close Encounters is ultimately a spiritual quest. The religious themes woven into the Schrader script evolved into a more contemporary New Age journey of enlightenment for Roy, Jillian, and Lacombe as the story reached its final form. The 1970s were a time of New Age and Self-Help bestsellers, often attributed to sociological factors of the time from the Cold War, Vietnam, social unrest, and other resulting pressures on families and individuals (Star Wars is often viewed in that context). Attempts to communicate with beings outside the Earth channels a certain need that the film allows the viewer to become invested in. There's a human need to be understood as well to understand the mystery, Spielberg manages to make it cinematic and unique.

Spielberg embedded religious imagery and symbolism throughout the film. At the Neary household the children are watching The Ten Commandments which tells the story of Moses and The Exodus, a big budget Hollywood production and forerunner of the modern blockbuster. Different cultures interacting with the UFOs draw connections as seen in Mexico and the sequence filmed in India suggest a more pantheistic theme. The landing sequence is a light and sound show of intergalactic communication. Roy becomes a sort of Moses figure, climbing the mountain to meet the beings and eventually being “chosen” to join them. Before the mysterious group known as the “Mayflower 12” are to board the ship they receive a blessing during a Christian service. Whether one is believer, agnostic, or atheist knowledge of intelligent life elsewhere would compel any thinking person to consider the universe in a new light. The film manages to achieve a cathartic feeling by the end despite some of the narrative anomalies along the way.

The John Williams score adds to the sense of wonder. Remarkedly, Williams had also composed the score for Star Wars about the same time yet both contrast in tone and style. If Star Wars was big and bombastic from the opening to closing titles, the music of Close Encounters is more subtle, tones ranging from mysterious to wondrous. The iconic five notes create a thematic link through the entire score. For the end titles, Williams even wove in the melody from “When You Wish Upon a Star” to reference Pinocchio and the film's theme of transcendence.

Richard Dreyfuss was ideally cast as Neary, providing the child-like personality the role demanded and serving as Spielberg's avatar. Many other actors including Dustin Hoffman, Jack Nicholson, and Steve McQueen. On the DVD Spielberg recalls meeting with McQueen at bar to discuss the script, at one point McQueen excused himself to stop a fight and then came back and finished the meeting. He turned down the role because he could not cry on camera but encouraged Spielberg to move on with a different actor. 

Teri Garr as Ronnie continued Spielberg’s early tendency to include problematic wife roles with Goldie Hawn in The Sugarland Express and Lorraine Gary in Jaws. Ronnie's played as an unsympathetic character but does react the way any normal person would in such a circumstance. Truffaut provides a humanism to the film. Balaban is a faithful confidante to Lacombe. I’ve yet to get a copy of the diary Balaban wrote about his experiences during the production.

The final sequence also highlights the “Spielberg Face” gazing with awe into the sky as the ships land. With the Williams score and neon display of lights the sequence becomes a symphony on film. In the maligned 1980 Special Edition Roy enters the ship but its underwhelming and throws off the rhythm of the ending. The restored version omits the onboard sequence in favor of the mysterious ending of Neary simply entering the craft. In many ways E.T. would serve as a sequel in spirit to Close Encounters, with Spielberg reducing the themes to their base elements in a story of reconciliation from a child's perspective.

For the DVD interview Spielberg spoke of seeing the film as an expression of his youthful ideas, and confesses to being more pessimistic with age. In 2005 he presented a far darker vision of alien visitation in his remake of War of the Worlds. Made in the context of a post 9/11 world, Spielberg portrays an America on the run in the face of a terrifying alien invasion, but the real horror portrays Americans violently turning on each other in order to survive in the middle of an occupation. The post 60s sensibility of Close Encounters and E.T. mutated into a darker vision of humanity.

As times have changed. Close Encounters persists as a classic. It taps into human curiosity about the universe and the possibility of life elsewhere. The special effects supervised by Douglas Trumbull remain impressive, even more so with the use of the technology at hand. The movie made everyone want to walk out of the theater and watch the skies. 


Close Encounters of the Third Kind: The Making of the Classic Film by Roy Morton

Close Encounters of the Third Kind: The Ultimate Visual History by Michael Klastorin

The Making of Close Encounters of the Third Kind - DVD Extra - Directed by Laurent Bouzerau


Thursday, April 29, 2021

Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2002)

Directed by George Clooney

Written by Charlie Kaufman

George Clooney's directorial debut Confessions of a Dangerous Mind has the rhythm of an episodic television episode and the retro cinematic style of 1970s New Hollywood. Based on Chuck Barris's "memoir" that created an urban legend: he led a double life as an assassin for the CIA. With a script by Charlie Kaufman, Clooney admittedly attempted to imitate the directorial style of the Coen Brothers and Steven Soderbergh. The result is a postmodern fastball about ephemeral post-war pop culture and Cold War lore with a fractured narrative style and speculative representation of history viewed through a lens of distortion and uncertainty. 

Sam Rockwell was cast as Barris after hundreds of actors were considered. Barris's book had been a hot property since the 1980s with many directors expressing interest in the project. Kaufman's script was later modified by Clooney who thought it was too experimental for a major studio release leading to acrimony between the writer and director. Drew Barrymore was cast Barris's long time girlfriend Penny and Julia Roberts as a nefarious assassin. Clooney cast himself as Barris's CIA handler Jim. Real life figures who worked with Barris appear in interview segments reminiscent of Warren Beatty's Reds. Brad Pitt and Matt Damon also made cameo appearances. Whether one believes the story or not is irrelevant, the narrative possibilities are paramount.  

The film depicts Barris as an anti-social young man only interested in chasing women and getting into the nascent television industry. He wrote the 1962 pop song "Palisades Park" and eventually produced game shows like the The Dating Game and The Newlywed Game. The Gong Show only emboldened his critics who viewed him as the epitome of junk culture. Much of the disposable reality TV of the 21st Century owes a debt to those shows. Clooney also had a familiarity with the era since his father Nick Clooney worked in TV news, giving the film a Network vibe at times.

The contrasting worlds of television and cold war espionage create a mash up of 70s movies like paranoid thrillers of Alan Pakula - Klute, The Parallax View, and All the President's Men. Dark humor is especially present during his undercover missions, all those trips to West Berlin and Vienna with couples from The Dating Game chaperoned by Barris were allegedly cover for hit jobs. He never knew the reasons behind any of his jobs other than his targets were considered enemies of the government or even which side of the government he was working for; the lines continue to blur as paranoia takes over the story. As the espionage and TV worlds begin to merge the film comes close to channeling the woozy mindset of the era. 

By far Clooney's most adventurous film, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind benefits from its retro sense of the surreal. Clooney's more conventional approach and Kaufman's script are in conflict and create something of a compromise. More of a curio than a classic, it's best to watch sometime after 2am.

Wednesday, April 28, 2021

Saving Private Ryan (1998)

Saving Private Ryan
proved to be another cultural touchstone in Steven Spielberg's epic career by launching a conversation on the legacy of the Second World War and "the greatest generation" phenomenon. An overpowering film and groundbreaking in its recreation of the Omaha Beach landings, it looked and felt like no WWII film made up to that point in time.

WWII has enamored Spielberg throughout his career. There was the USS Indianapolis speech in Jaws, the 1979 flop comedy 1941, and the Indiana Jones trilogy. Empire of the Sun from 1987 looked at the war from a child's perspective that was based on the J.G. Ballard novel. Schindler's List portrayed the Holocaust like no film before or since. Arnold Spielberg, Steven's father, had served in the Army Air Force in the China-Burma-India theatre. When asked why the Second World War looms so large in his films Spielberg answered: 

I think that WWII is the most significant event of the last 100 years; the fate of the baby boomers and even Generation X was linked to the outcome. (208)

Robert Rodat wrote the screenplay, a fictional story inspired by a real-life anecdote he read in Stephen Ambrose 1995 bestseller D-Day: June 6, 1944: The Climatic Battle of World War II. The story involved a squad of soldiers sent behind enemy lines to locate a lost soldier who unbeknownst to him had lost all his brothers in combat. Rodat's script found its way into Spielberg's orbit, an ideal project for him since he had always wanted to make a film about WWII combat, plus the story of a behind the enemy lines mission to save a family especially appealed to his sensibility. 

The cast of the film featured some of the finest young talent in Hollywood. Tom Hanks, easing into his role as America's dad at this point, was a natural as Captain Miller, the "citizen soldier" leader of the squad assigned to find the lost soldier. Matt Damon earned the title role as Private Ryan. Other members of the squad included Tom Sizemore as battle hardened Sgt. Horvath, indie filmmaker Edward Burns as Private Rieben, Barry Pepper as the sniper Jackson, Adam Goldberg as Jewish-American Private Mellish, Giovanni Ribisi as the medic Wade, Jeremy Davies playing the interpreter Upham, and Vin Diesel as the gregarious Private Caparzo. 

Recreating the Omaha Beach landing remains the most memorable sequence. The sound design and visual style provide both the scope and horror of the battle. A feat of filmmaking unsurpassed - but not without controversy. Some have pointed out that it downplays the contributions of all the Allied Forces at Normandy and that it glorifies warfare.Francois Truffaut famously stated that it's impossible to make an anti-war movie since any depiction of battle will look exciting no matter how awful. Others have accused Spielberg of glorifying war crimes when American troops are shown shooting German troops after they surrendered. 

To the last point, Captain Miller looks on with disapproval when he witnesses the killing of the prisoners. The issue comes up again when they capture the German soldier who killed Wade. After debating whether killing him in retribution they decide to let him go (only to have him return and kill Miller, Mellish, and Horvath at the Remelle battle). Perhaps the point was to show the absurdities and cruel nature of war (not endorsing war crimes).

Once Allied forces secured Omaha and the other landing sites, the grueling drive to liberate France began. The long middle section of Private Ryan is another point of contention, one which I find even more baffling. Spielberg allows to get to know the soldiers and their personalities. Unlike all the soldiers who perished on the beaches, just a pile of nameless typed sympathy letters, we feel the loss when someone gets killed in the squad. It reminds us that the loss of all soldiers on all sides was a shattering loss to their loved ones, a void that never goes away. Spielberg fans always point out that a great strength of Jaws is the screen time devoted to character development, we get to know the men on the Orca. Granted the middle section lacks the pure cinematic force of the opening, but it develops character in a series of effective sequences.

Quiet moments of the men reflecting on their experiences late at night or the tense moments before battle provide a humanity. At the French village an interaction with civilians leads to the death of Private Caparzo, shot by a sniper while trying to comfort a terrified little girl. Spielberg lets the camera linger on him forcing the audience to ponder the loss. The men also debate the logic of their mission, resenting the idea of their lives being sacrificed to save a fellow soldier, the implication being Ryan's life is worth more than their own. Once the squad locates Ryan they remind him of their losses they suffered in order to save him, but they eventually come to respect him as a soldier. 

The climactic battle at Remelle is more in the classically cinematic mode with Spielberg pulling out all the stops with long shots, close ups, tracking shots, a far more personalized than the Normandy sequence. A sense of desperation and intensity are the primary tone, but it's also a textbook action sequence heightened by the personal drama. 

The bookend sequences, with an older Ryan revisiting Normandy with his family, also elicits conflicting reactions. When Ryan asked his wife if he was a good person, it feels overly sentimental. From a narrative perspective, it does provide a proper ending to the story. Though part of me is more interested in a film where we don't know the fate of Ryan.

Saving Private Ryan continues to influence war movies with its dedication to realism and kinetic style. Tom Hanks's quiet but determined performance as Miller offered an everyday type of heroism free of the over the top bombast of the John Wayne movies. While there are still so many stories to be told about the war and its ongoing meaning in American and World history, Saving Private Ryan opened new possibilities. 

Steven Spielberg: Interviews. Ed, Lester D. Friedman and Brent Notbohm. Jackson: UPM, 2000.

Thursday, April 1, 2021

Boogie Nights (1997) ****

If Hard Eight was a throwback the days of New Hollywood in the tradition of Scarecrow or California Split, Boogie Nights takes a more epic approach. Spanning the late 1970s from the early 1980s, the story follows various figures in the adult film industry gathered around charismatic director Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds). It would be easy to blurb Boogie Nights as the ultimate synthesis of Altman and Scorsese, while that's not completely wrong, Paul Thomas Anderson continued to develop themes he would return to again and again, specifically alternate family structures and an identification with  the outsider.

In a star making role, Mark Wahlberg is Eddie Adams who becomes pornstar Dirk Diggler. The story opens with Eddie working as a busboy at a nightclub where adult film stars frequent, Horner discovers Eddie's physical gift that will make him famous. In one of many memorable sequences, Eddie's introduced to Horner's world at a never ending poolside party. Cocaine and beautiful people are everywhere with "Spill the Wine" playing in the background. The fantastical world of the 1970s adult film industry is countered by Eddie's dull middle class life and a mother who rejects him outright. Wahlberg convincingly portrays an innocent who develops an inflated ego destined to bring about an epic downfall.

Other luminaries in the cast included Julianne Moore as starlet Amber Waves, John C. Reilly as Dirk's sidekick Reed Rothchild, Don Cheadle as Buck Swope, and Heather Graham as Rollergirl. Anderson also highlights the era of filmmaking by also making the crew supporting characters including William H. Macy as Little Bill, Ricky Jay as editor, and Philip Seymour Hoffman as a sound operator. The ensemble cast manages to create an enduring tapestry. 

Anderson loves his characters and that's part of the enduring power of the film. It's not a jokey picture about the adult film industry or the people who work within it. There's empathy in every frame. Nine years before Boogie Nights, Anderson directed a mockumentary shot on video entititled The Dirk Diggler Story, which takes a satirical approach to the subject matter, I suspect was inspired by trashy news magazine shows of the era. When Scotty J makes a sexual advance on Diggler while drunk the moment plays as awkward and tragic, Anderson lets the camera linger on Scotty as he weeps in the car. The entire cast does a great job of fostering the empathy - Julianne Moore at a custody hearing or Don Cheadle in the middle of a hold up. Even the now famous "Jessie's Girl" scene towards the end with Alfred Molina devolves into tragicomic violence that's both heartbreaking and terrifying in its own unique way.

Boogie Nights also suggests some of the larger themes Anderson would explore in the future, an interest in systems and the mysterious forces that move them. As Horner explains to Diggler, the movies are all about making money. The organized crime funding the films is alluded to but peripheral to the story. The changing technology from film to video allows the films to be made quicker and cheaper. There's also the idea of being outside of society - the thrill and cost of it. 

Visually impressive , funny and tragic, while moving at a kinetic pace Boogie Nights has aged well.

Sunday, March 28, 2021

Dead Poets Society (1989) **1/2

The inspirational teacher remains a popular movie trope. Goodbye Mr. Chips celebrated the dutiful teacher dedicated to his students, and many classic films followed in that spirit. Dead Poets Society is remembered as one of Robin Williams's memorable roles, one that earned him an Oscar nomination and was fondly memorialized after his passing. Set at a New England Prep School during the 1950s, Williams plays an anti-conformist poetry teacher who inspires his students in the right ways and wrong ways.

Peter Weir's direction complements the Williams performance. At the vanguard of the Australian Wave 1970s cinema, Weir directed multiples classics including The Cars That Ate Paris, Picnic at Hanging Rock, The Last Wave, and Gallipoli all notable for their distinct sense of setting and history. Weir made two films with Harrison Ford in the mid-1980s; the popular Witness set in Pennsylvania Amish country and The Mosquito Coast a prescient and moody fable of American hubris and the colonizer mentality. 

The insular Prep School (Welton Academy) environment suits Weir's sensibility and mirrors Hanging Rock which was set at a Girls School during the early 20th Century. Dead Poets Society lacks the sense of mystery of Hanging Rock and instead tells a more focused story (the boys retreating to the cave to read poetry may be an indirect reference) one might find on an After School special. 

Robin Williams stars as John Keating, the new English teacher at the academy. The students all come from white families of privilege and are destined for Ivy League colleges and lucrative careers. Notables among the cast of students are Ethan Hawke in an early role as a shy student and Robert Sean Leonard (Neil) as a sensitive young man inspired to pursue acting by Mr. Keating. 

Williams certainly commands every scene he's in, but the story's not really about his character. Next to nothing is revealed about his personal life or about his past (in an early version of the script he was struggling with cancer). While the students are skeptical of his unorthodox teaching methods at first: ripping out pages of the textbook and arguing that poetry should be viewed as a way of life, they come to admire him as a role model. The now often repeated slogan of the movie, "Carpe Diem" (seize the day) inspires the boys to take risks, but at the same time leads to conflicts with their elders. This is where the movie suffers from not revealing more about Keating: Has he lived by his own principles? 

Keating's anti-academic approach to teaching poetry is illustrated in the scene where he defies the need to study poetry strictly by looking at form (meter and verse). Keating mirrors the Beats of the 1950s, although neither Ginsburg nor Howl are referenced. Keating's teaching methods put him at odds with administration who want to deter students from pursuing the arts instead of a professional career. It's an indictment of a system designed to stifle creativity that remains the ethos in the even more careerist educational system of the 21st Century. 

As the administration notices a change in Keating's students, the Dean (Norman Lloyd) begins to get suspicious. When Neil's passion for acting bring him into conflict with his conservative father it leads to tragedy. The false optimism of the final scene speaks to an emptiness running throughout the film. At one point Williams appears to go into his stand-up routine doing a Brando impression, a moment that now lands as forced. Neither is there much personality among the students who continually view Keating as more of an entertainer than a teacher. 

While Dead Poets Society is obviously speaking to 1950s conformity, a less melodramatic approach to the material would have allowed for nuance on the theme of teaching methods and purpose of an education.